April 28, 1986 12:00 PM

by Stephen Spender

To Virginia Woolf, Spender was “a rattleheaded, bolt-eyed young man, rawboned, loose-jointed. [He] thinks himself the greatest poet of all time.” In his journal many years later, Spender had his quiet revenge. Of Woolf he said, “There is something about her of the bitter-tongued spinster.” By no means are Sir Stephen’s diaries always so lively. At times a psychic grayness clings like damp channel fog to Spender’s prose. In a world that quivers for the quick literary fix, his journals take patience. One wonders too what his British editor, John Goldsmith, has left out. But in the end the book is rewarding for its glimpses of a 20th-century poet’s world. Over the years Spender has been on intimate terms with T.S. Eliot, Cyril Connolly, Henry Moore and David Hockney. The painter Francis Bacon, known for his violent distortions, once confided to Spender that he wanted to paint something beautiful before he died. After paying a call on Igor Stravinsky one May day in 1962, Spender describes how the celebrated composer, who was headed for Africa, turned playful. “Suddenly he was on all fours, his stick with hook turned up like a horn, his eyes glazed—a rhinoceros.” Spender rendezvoused with the seedy-looking and uneasy British spy Guy Burgess on a 1960 trip to the Soviet Union. In New York in the early 1980s Spender bid his adieus to Stravinsky’s fading widow, Vera. “I don’t know what this room is,” Vera said at one point, looking round her. “I am sure these are not my things.” Spender wept openly. He also reveals an uncertainty about how he has used his talent. If as a youth he ever thought of himself as a great poet, as an aging one he has his doubts. “Being a minor poet is like being minor royalty,” he wrote in 1979, “and no one, as a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret once explained to me, is happy as that.” (Random House, $19.95)

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